Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Okay, so this has kind of been a lousy year for me getting to movies. I don’t like that this was the case. But between a full-time job, a relationship, needing to get stuff straightened up around the house after my father passed away last year, a decision to take some online courses towards a specialty certificate in film scoring from the Berklee College of Music online, as well as maintaining some personal time for myself, something had to give, and unfortunately, it was seeing movies at theatres. Whether that trend continues into the future will be seen depending on how life goes from here. I hope it doesn’t.

The upside of a reduction of movies seen in theatres means that, if I’m seeing a film in theatres, it’s something I will, typically, very much want to see. That isn’t always the case (movies like “Under the Skin,” “The Zero Theorem,” “Tusk,” and “Life Itself” had to be seen at home), but being picky about theatrical viewing has it’s advantages– namely, you skip a lot of the dreck, although a misstep will still happen every once in a while (thanks, “Transformers” and “Sin City” sequels).

All that being said, there’s still a great deal I haven’t been able to see yet. “Boyhood,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Annabelle,” “Divergent,” “The Boxtrolls,” “Get On Up,” and “Gone Girl” are just a few of the noteworthy films from this year I haven’t gotten to yet, to say nothing of Oscar contenders out at the end of the year, or not until January (no “Selma,” “Inherent Vice,” “Whiplash,” “Still Alice,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” or “The Theory of Everything”). As a result, as with last year, I will be holding off on official Top 10 lists until my final Oscar predictions blog in February, and for now, just offering up a handful of movies that meant the most to me, or had a lasting effect on me as a moviegoer, along with some favorite soundtracks and performances, and a shout-down of the year’s worst.

If you’ve stuck it out with me at Sonic Cinema this year, I greatly appreciate it. Still working on a “new normal” with so many changes happening in my life, and the support of readers and other people who help make Sonic Cinema a wonderful outlet for me is not forgotten. Now, on with the show!

Movies That Made an Impact on Me in 2014

=“How to Train Your Dragon 2” (Directed by Dean DeBlois)- The second this sequel to Dreamworks Animation’s best-ever film ended, I knew it would be a very tall order for anything to supplant it among not just the year’s best films, but my favorites. While I suppose it could still happen (Linklater’s “Boyhood” is still in my “to see” queue), it doesn’t surprise me that it hasn’t yet. In “Dragon 2,” we see Hiccup and Toothless, the Night Fury dragon he formed a bond with in the first film, as they come to a crossroads. Having proven himself to his father and his village, Hiccup is being considered to take over as chief, but when he comes across a plot to create a dragon army, as well as a mysterious masked rider, his world is about to be turned upside down. To say this resonated with me eight months after my father died is putting it mildly, but it also got me to watch the first “Dragon” again, and appreciate it even more as part of a larger story of a son trying to step out of his father’s shadow, and become his own man, while also honoring the person his father is. This film’s relative disappointment at the North American box-office stings (how it wasn’t a bigger hit is beyond me), but it’s emotional heft combined with thrilling adventure is what matters most to this viewer, who saw a lot of himself in the story on screen.

=“Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu)- It’s the eternal question: what do we want our legacy to be? For Riggan Thomson, the question has never been more urgent– after years of only being known for playing a superhero in progressively bad movies, Thomson is trying to reinvent himself on Broadway by writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation of the Raymond Carver story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. With opening night fast approaching, doubt begins to creep in, and previews are missing that special something that could turn the show into a triumph for the actor. Because of the cinematic imagination that propels Iñárritu’s backstage dark comedy, and gives us an impression of the film as one, long take, the fundamental themes of the story are at risk of getting lost in the shuffle, but the existential dilemma that drives the film (and Michael Keaton’s tour de force, career-best, performance) is alive and kicking in every dazzling frame. Everyone involved with the film, from actors Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and composer Antonio Sanchez (whose drum set score is a master class in “less is more” film scoring), is operating at the peak of their powers to realize the uncompromising personal vision of the director of “Babel” and “Biutiful,” who swings for the fences, and knocks it out of the park.

=“Noah” (Directed by Darren Aronofsky)- Earlier this year, I wrote a blog about “faith-based” Christian films, and how the focus on a specific message many times gets in the way of quality filmmaking. Part of that comes from the fact that they are typically made by Christians, for Christians, without much interest (it seems) of reaching the broader public. The fact that “Noah” comes from a different place than that (Aronofsky, raised in a Jewish household, is an acknowledged atheist) is a strength for the film from a creative standpoint, but was also a hindrance when it came to finding an audience with some Christians, who didn’t like the way he adapted the story of Noah to the screen. It’s a real shame, too, because the “Fountain” and “Black Swan” director’s film is one of the boldest, and most thought-provoking, religious films since Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Not content with exploring one reading of the Noah tale, Aronofsky shows a deft touch at looking at multiple angles of the story of a man (played by Russell Crowe in his best work since “Gladiator”) charged by a Creator to build an ark for all the animals of the world as He washes away sinful man. What happens after the flood waters dissipate? Does man have a place in this new start? Aronofsky doesn’t ask easy questions, and for Noah and his family, there is no easy answer. Filled with haunting imagery and aided by a mesmerizing score by longtime collaborator Clint Mansell, Aronofsky’s film is both a thrilling, and soul-searching, experience.

=“Life Itself” (Directed by Steve James)- When Gene Siskel died in 1999, an institution of American cinema died, as well. Roger Ebert continued to try and keep the spirit alive with other collaborators, but nobody could replace Siskel as half of the greatest ying/yang critical team in movie history. Now, Roger is gone, as well, although under the stewardship of his wife Chazz, and handpicked editors, his online home continues on. As it was in 1999, though, it’s just not the same. These thoughts have little to do with this absorbing, beautiful documentary about Ebert, which follows everything from his Pulitzer Prize-winning career to his alcoholism and womanizing to his contentious relationship with Siskel and his long, difficult battle with cancer that eventually took his spoken voice, and his life, but rejuvenated his actual voice as a critic, but as he did with his landmark, “Hoop Dreams,” 20 years ago (a film Siskel & Ebert both agreed on, and one Ebert called the best of the ’90s), James isn’t just about making the audience consider what is on screen, but how what we’re seeing can reflect in our own lives, and what matters to us. Over the years, Roger Ebert became a spiritual and creative influence on me, and what I’ve tried to create with my own critical voice (and the website I present it at), and it saddens me that I’ll never read another new Roger Ebert review again. With his film, though, James ensures that Ebert, and his life’s work, will never be forgotten, and may serve as an inspiration for many others to come after.

=“Interstellar” (Directed by Christopher Nolan)- I was never really one of those kids who wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up (Hell, I didn’t really think seriously about the question until my teens), but there’s something about the sci-fi genre that has always spoken to me. I think it’s because, more than any other genre, it can take an individual to a completely new world, or challenge our ideas of the universe. With his new film, Nolan goes the route of “hard sci-fi” with a story of Earth becoming uninhabitable for man, and the risks of a flight into the cosmos that could provide a new place for us to live. Working from a screenplay by his brother Jonathan, inspired by the work of physicist Kip Thorne, the “Dark Knight” director aims for the bold, imaginative heights of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Gravity” as he sends Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway off to space, while Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain (playing McConaughey’s grown daughter) try and solve a critical equation back on Earth. Time and space are twisted in the knots of Einstein’s theory of relativity in a race-against-time that raises the stakes exponentially. No other film in 2014 was so technically accomplished, with everything from the stunning visual effects to one of the greatest scores Hans Zimmer has ever composed working in perfect synchronicity, and in a year that includes “Noah,” “Birdman,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” that is saying something. The fact that it’s also the most emotionally satisfying film of Nolan’s career just raises the bar even further for whatever he has coming next.

=“Eroticide” (Directed by Matthew Saliba)- Yan and Elise are out on a romantic dinner, celebrating nine months together, when in walks Kendra. Kendra is Yan’s ex, who Yan broke up with after five years because, he realized, that he deserved more than her humiliating form of “love.” He grew a positive sense of self, and moved on to something better. When Kendra comes back into his life, though, there is a shocking reversal that sends his relationship with Elise spiraling. Watching Saliba’s emotionally absorbing short film again, the thing that really continues to stand out is the way we aren’t quite sure whether or not to feel sorry for Yan after his emotionally abusive ex comes back into his life, or pity him for how little he seems to have really changed, despite having a wonderful woman in his life in Elise, when we see the effect Kendra has on him. At some point, we have to just accept the choices we’ve made in life, and Yan makes some truly awful ones here. The result is a powerful look at a damaged soul, and how one event can have tragic consequences. It will stay with you.

=“Showing Sydney” (Directed by Edgar Muniz)- I probably overstated it in my review when I called “Showing Sydney” my favorite film of writer-director Muniz’s to date, if only because his 2010 film, “Someone Else in the Evening,” still resonates deeply with me. However, “Sydney” is very easily second, with it’s story of a young woman (Sydney, played by co-writer Suley Rivera) who came out to LA to make movies, but finds herself the subject of one after her director boyfriend finds her fascinating, and real. While he is out at screenings, and doing Q&A about the film (and Sydney), Sydney is still in LA, and realizes some hard truths about herself that the film about her life brings up. As with “Someone Else in the Evening” and “From the Heart of the Crowd,” Muniz collaborated with his lead actress on the screenplay, which is an invaluable method for director and actor to get to the heart and soul of a film like this. The result is brutally honest, and an exceptional study in character.

=“Snowpiercer” (Directed by Bong Joon-ho)- I had to wait for Netflix to watch this summer cult favorite, but when I did, I’m not gonna lie– I see what people were talking about. (It wouldn’t be on this list if I didn’t.) This is the English-language debut of Bong Joon-ho, who is adapting a French graphic novel about a dystopian world where Earth has entered a second ice age, and the only survivors are a few hundred people on a train that never stops running. As it tends to happen, the train has become divided by class, with the lower classes being ruled by fear by the upper classes (personified by Tilda Swinton in a trademark excellent performance). That has become unacceptable, and a revolution is started by Curtis (Chris Evans), who has a mentor in Gilliam (John Hurt). As with other films on this list, “Snowpiercer,” which has a great international cast, is the definition of visionary filmmaking, with wondrous, and haunting, sights, and brutal action, all at the service of a story that is unlike anything else we’ve seen from this type of future world, and hopefully, the start of a bold future with Joon-ho (“Mother,” “The Host”).

=“Draft Day” (Directed by Ivan Reitman)- I’ll be the first to admit that this football comedy drama is not on the same level of “Ghostbusters” and “Dave” for Reitman, but that’s not why it’s on this list. The fact that it has Kevin Costner playing an embattled GM for the Cleveland Browns, whom I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid, definitely helps (the idea that, at one point, this script focused on any team but the Browns is laughable for this 3rd-generation fan), but it’s the film’s focus on a son trying to find his own path in the wake of a recently-deceased father that really resonates with me, for obvious reasons, although that didn’t seem as obvious the first time I saw the film.

Honorable Mention: One thing I didn’t do last year was acknowledge some of the other films that won me over beyond this exclusive list. This year, I’d like to. Here are a few more you’ll see me championing as Oscar season continues, and my coverage of 2014 ends: “The LEGO Movie”; “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” & “Guardians of the Galaxy”; “Rosewater”; “Begin Again”; “If I Stay”; “Under the Skin”; “Big Hero 6”; “Under the Dark Wing”; “Monster Killer”; “Godzilla”; “Lucy”; “The Saratov Approach”; “Tusk”

Favorite Performances of 2014

Even though there are still many to see, there were a crazy amount of performances that really got to me this year, from a wide variety of films, whether it was an avant garde indie film to a giant blockbuster, to films in between. These are just a few of the ones that really stood out.

1. Michael Keaton, “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
2. Jake Ghyllenhaal, “Nightcrawler”
3. Ralph Fiennes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
4. Scarlett Johansson, “Under the Skin” & “Lucy”
5. Russell Crowe, “Noah”
6. Chloe Grace Moretz, “If I Stay”
7. Matthew McConaughey, “Interstellar”
8. Jay Baruchel, “How to Train Your Dragon 2”
9. Stephanie van Rijn, “Eroticide”
10. Jessica Chastain, “Interstellar”
11. Chris Pratt, “The LEGO Movie” & “Guardians of the Galaxy”
12. Suley Rivera, “Showing Sydney”
13. Edward Norton, “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
14. Eva Green, “300: Rise of the Empire” & “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”
15. Kevin Costner, “Draft Day”

Favorite Film Music of 2014

I can’t say that this was a great year, on the whole, for film music, but damn, when it was great, it was stellar. Here are the 10 soundtracks that really resonated with me this year, and as you can see (and probably hear), some of Hollywood’s best and brightest had a lot to offer this year.

1. “Interstellar”, by Hans Zimmer; It’s been 20 years since Zimmer won an Oscar, which seems criminal when you consider his iconic scores for “Gladiator,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” since. However, with the (definitely criminal) exclusion of my #2 score on this list from Oscar consideration, Zimmer’s inspired, ecclesiastical work for Christopher Nolan’s latest film could very easily earn him his second Oscar this year.
2. “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”, by Antonio Sanchez; There are strains of classical works scattered throughout the soundtrack of this dark comedy, but percussionist Sanchez’s drum kit score drowns it all out with startling nuance and inspiration that shows that, truly, less can be so much more in film music.
3. “Noah”, by Clint Mansell; How is it Clint Mansell has yet to receive an Oscar nomination, let alone an Oscar, for his work with Darren Aronofsky? If not for “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain” should have gotten him one. I have some ideas why he didn’t, but in a just world, his latest score for Aronofsky should get him the Oscar recognition he deserves. Alas, I don’t know if it will happen with such a divisive film.
4. “How to Train Your Dragon 2”, by John Powell; The 2010 original film was a great film in many ways, and a big part of that was Powell’s thrilling, Oscar-nominated score. For the sequel, Powell returns, and his work is every big as good, with songs that help encapsulate the emotional pull of the film. Hopefully, another Oscar nomination will be in store for the composer.
5. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, by Alexandre Desplat and Various Artists; When Desplat first started to make a name for himself in Hollywood films, whether it was “Syriana” or “Firewall” or “The Queen,” his work didn’t really do anything for me. As you’ll see, that’s kind of changed, and his ongoing collaboration with Wes Anderson (this is their third film together) is a big reason why. Set during WWII in a fictional European country, Anderson continues to create onscreen worlds like nobody else, and Desplat continues to ground those worlds with some of the oddest, loveliest musical voices in modern cinema. I don’t know if his Oscar moment will come this year (he currently has six nods and no wins), but it’s definitely going to come sooner rather than later, and if there’s a collaboration it will happen with, I have a feeling it will be with Anderson.
6. “Guardians of the Galaxy”, by Various Artists and Tyler Bates; Whether it’s an original soundtrack like “Frozen” or “Titanic,” or a song compilation like “The Bodyguard” or “The Graduate,” anytime a movie soundtrack finds itself with success on the music charts, it’s a good sign that the people involved came up with something special. And in compiling a mix of classic ’60s and ’70s songs to act as a soundtrack for main character Peter Quill, music supervisor Dave Jordan and director James Gunn did a brilliant job at building character, and a tone for the movie, through music. Bates’s traditional score is a fine piece of film music, but it’s the songs that make Marvel’s “Guardians” really sing.
7. “Godzilla”, by Alexandre Desplat; Desplat had five scores this year, starting with one holdover, then continuing with another wonderful Wes Anderson collaboration, and delivering a bombastic blockbuster score before he moved to two Oscar contenders. His work on the blockbuster, however, should not be discounted, because he deliver a dramatic, powerful, and nuanced score that helped fulfill the emotional requirements of the story.
8. “The LEGO Movie”, by Mark Mothersbaugh; Yes, the big reason this soundtrack is on this list is because of it’s earworm song, “Everything is Awesome!,” but if you take the time to listen to the score by Mothersbaugh, you’ll hear a carefully crafted, exceptional piece of comedic action writing that proves that with this surprise smash, EVERYTHING is, indeed, awesome.
9. “If I Stay”, by Various Artists; I’ll be the first to admit that, in terms of song soundtracks go, it’s a very distant second on the year after “Guardians of the Galaxy” (and probably tied with “Begin Again,” at that), but the combination of original songs, classical music, and original score here tells a story of young love and tough choices that is memorable and emotionally real.
10. “Lucy”, by Eric Serra; As much as I have missed Luc Besson as an action director, I’ve missed his longtime composer’s work on those films more. With Besson’s loopy sci-fi action thriller, I got to welcome both of them back into the fold, and they rewarded my patience with a beautifully exciting mind meld of imagination and confidence in what they’re doing.

Brian’s Worst Films of 2014

Ultimately, I’m a “glass half-full” type of guy when it comes to movies; I hope to find enough good in a movie to feel like I didn’t waste my time seeing it. Sometimes, though, you just have to accept that what you saw was awful, and when you do, this is where those movies end up. There aren’t a lot, but there are enough to make you cringe.

The Fs:
1. “Winter’s Tale”– I’m still dumbfounded by what Akiva Goldsman’s film, which has Colin Farrell as a romantic, undying leading man, Russell Crowe as a demonic gangleader, and Will Smith (yes, Will Smith) as Lucifer, is about, and why so many talented actors (including Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt) would agree to it. There’s just no words for this level of ineptitude from a major studio, adapting an (apparently) beloved novel.

2. “Hit Team”– The worst movie I’ve ever been asked by a filmmaker to review (and THAT’s saying something considering my first filmmaker screener request, “Royal Faceoff,” set a pretty high bar in that regards back in 2006). The story of a male and female hit team, and their misadventures while on a job in LA, the film tries to be a straight-up action comedy in the vain of a “Lethal Weapon” or “21 Jump Street,” but the tone really doesn’t click, preferring mugging and straining for laughs over genuine performances and clever writing. That said, it is, truly, one of the most absurdly watchable bad movies I have ever seen (the type where there’s at least one moment of dialogue that just makes you smile with how awesomely lunatic it is), which definitely gives it a leg up on “Winter’s Tale,” which I would require being strapped down, “Clockwork Orange”-style, to watch again.

The Ds: Those weren’t the only films that brought doom and gloom to the moviewatching year, for I would be remiss if I failed to mention: “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, Michael Bay’s fourth movie about robots in disguise, which took the critically-maligned franchise to it’s worst depths of ludicrous storytelling and visual chaos; “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s nine-years-later sequel to their neo noir comic book collaboration, which offered a seductive, sensational performance by Eva Green, but stilted acting by everyone else.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com

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